Confirmation Conversation

I had a good chat with Angie and Megan today.  Both gals are excellent youth ministers here in the Des Moines area.  We get together once a week to talk about specific aspects of ministry.  It’s a little experiment we stole from a local school district called a Professional Learning Community.  Basically it’s a peer-led mini continuing education experience.  The discussions are enriching; and they are most beneficial when we disagree.  Such was the case today.

The topic was Confirmation Ministry, something that exists in almost every Lutheran church.  The “end result” of CM is for teens (usually in 8th or 9th grade) to make public proclamation of their faith in the Triune God, usually by reciting the Apostle’s Creed.  During the Affirmation of Baptism service, young people (along with the support of parents, baptismal sponsors, and the entire congregation) also make the following promises:  

 

  • To live among God’s faithful people
  • To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper
  • To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed
  • To serve all people, following the example of Jesus
  • To strive for justice and peace in all the earth

 

Considering the daunting nature of these promises, most Lutheran churches provide an extensive educational curriculum that helps young people grow in knowledge and faith in the years leading up to the Affirmation.  Common aspects of CM curriculum include weekly class time taught by a pastor or lay leader, service projects, taking notes in worship, writing faith statements, and the memorization of scripture and/or sections of Luther’s Small Catechism.  Some churches will write their own curriculum.  However, because most congregations have such similar approaches to CM, many Lutheran churches will purchase materials from Faith Inkubators or Here We Stand and tweak the resources to fit to their particular environment.   

The educational theory is good.  The pedagogy is solid.  The practice, in many ways, is also helpful.  (Full disclosure – I wrote a bunch of the material for Here We Stand.)  But, somewhere along the way, we managed to screw it up.

Which takes us back to my conversation with Angie and Megan…

One of the big struggles for people like us, who really care about helping young people grow in faith, is the “rite of passage” nature that CM has taken in most Lutheran churches.  Instead of being something that kids and parents choose to do, it’s something they do “because everyone else is doing it”; regardless of whether or not they have a desire to make public profession of their faith and assumer greater responsibility in the Christian life of faith.  The current format of CM assumes that all kids start at the same place on their faith journey…and, even worse, that all kids arrive at the same “I BELIEVE” moment at the same time.  

This all seems a bit disingenuous to me.  

Every year there are hundreds of young people who had no desire to go through the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism at the end of Confirmation instruction.  Typically, they were allowed (forced?) to go through it for one of two reasons: 

 

  1. “You’ve done all the work, you might as well reap the benefits”
  2. Family members have already planned to attend, and will be disappointed if you don’t “get confirmed”

 

Neither one of these have anything to do with the 5 promises listed above, let alone a public pronouncement of faith…and yet churches all over the world continue to enable this mindset by not calling the motives into question.  Some would argue, as someone did today, that we need to practice grace and demonstrate that we as a church are accepting of all people, regardless of their failures or shortcomings.  All people should be welcomed into the Body of Christ.  It doesn’t matter if they attended class regularly, completed their worship notes, or even believe in God.  

To this I say “bullcrap”.

Grace applies to salvation, and is something that should be practiced in our encounters with all people.  It also doesn’t apply in a situation where the church is supporting people who make the choice to affirm their Baptism.  Grace is showing compassion on a child who didn’t memorize Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed.  It’s not allowing a disinterested, uncommitted young person to make a mockery of Confirmation Ministry and then show up on Affirmation Sunday because Granny wants to see the kid in a white robe.

Puke. 

Confirmation is the closest thing we Lutherans come to making a “decision for Jesus” or choosing to “accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior”.  The Affirmation of Baptism is a joyous celebration in which someone take the promises that were made on their behalf when they were a baby and claims them as their own.  It’s serious business…something the church shouldn’t take lightly.  Allowing any and all 9th graders in the church to go through the entire process, regardless of authenticity, invalidates the efforts of those who are taking it seriously.  

Taking this approach to the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism also strengthens the argument that Lutherans are a wishy-washy denomination – one that is willing to take anyone and everyone who shows interest and refuse to bog them down with making real commitments.  This is moment where our faithful devotion to the grace of God is cheapened and reduced to nothing more than empty words on a page.  What are we teaching our young people about being members of the Body of Christ?  “We know that you have no desire to be here and that you don’t intend to fulfill the promises you’re making.  We’re happy to be partners with you in this deception, in the hopes that you’ll come back some day.”

Here’s the truth — they’re not coming back…either because they were never interested in the first place and then never will be or, even worse, they realize one day that they want to start attending church, but they don’t return to their “home church” because they don’t want to be affiliated with such a dishonest organization.  

That’s my biggest fear.  Every day I see young people craving purpose and meaning in their communities.  They want to be part of something that matters.  They desire accountability and real connectivity.  They want to be challenged to grow in faith, to realize their gifts and discover how to use them to the glory of God.  They understand, better than their parents, that church isn’t all things to all people.  They want to know that the church stands for something; even if that means they don’t get to wear the white robe.  

I believe there is room in our grace-orientation for all of these things.  We just need to have the courage to stand firm in who we are as a community of faith and, most importantly, walk with the young people and families who are not interested in Confirmation and bring them into the conversation.  I do not advocate abandoning those who don’t want to do Confirmation.  If anything, these households require even more of the church’s effort and energy.  

I also think churches should remove any affiliation with age-specific Affirmations of Baptism.  Furthermore, people should be able to affirm their Baptism whenever they feel it’s necessary.  The Christian life is filled with moments of doubt and moments of faith; times of “I Believe” and times of “I Don’t”.  We need to remove the notion that the one and only acceptable time to proclaim your faith is around the time you get your driver’s license.

I’m cooking up a proposal that incorporates some of those ideas.  It wouldn’t work at my church, but might work for someone else out there.  It’s something that utilizes the Here We Stand stuff, but could be used without it.  Look for it by the end of the month.

 

In closing, Confirmation is a topic that has been very close to my heart ever since I was 14.  Perhaps at another time in this space, I will share my Confirmation Ministry experience, and how it continues to shape me as a child of God and as a youth minister.  I really appreciated the insights and perspective that Angie and Megan offered today.  In the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions on anything I’ve written.  Let’s keep the Confirmation Conversation going!!!

 

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16 Responses to Confirmation Conversation

  1. Crystal says:

    Thank you for this! I serve a congregation in the Atlanta area and have been struggling with the way we do Confirmation in the ELCA. I am trying to figure out how to make Confirmation a time during the lives of young people where they truly begin to experience the amazing presence of Jesus Christ if they haven’t already. I would absolutely love to continue this conversation with you, and with others you know who are pushing the envelope in the Lutheran church 🙂

  2. godwillsaveus says:

    I agree with you. Confirmation “requirements” are contradictory to Grace theology. We should never “make” students do stuff to get confirmed or do anything to force them to affirm their baptism.

    The best we can do is offer our gifts as a church in teaching and faith formation, to the parents, the family, and the student.

    The hardest part is the culture shift. “That’s not what we had to do when we were teens” is one of the most difficult comments I deal with. The entire concept of large/small group time is new.

    In my opinion, the best time for catechetical study and affirmation of a baptism is at the point when students become adults. 18-25 (but these days they still act like adolescents at that age) At least their prefrontal cortex has developed and they can form basic abstract reasoning.

    In the past, confirmation was at the age when students became adults. 14. Students would “graduate” at 8th grade and become adults working in fields with the planting and harvest.

    They carried more responsibility and less entitlement.

    Erik, thank you for your posting, I would love to talk to you more about confirmation.

  3. Anne says:

    Erik,
    couldn’t agree more. When you work with a class of close to 60 9th graders you shave no choice but to stare down the reality that some if not most don’t give a rat’s ass and if to have to read any of the faith statements you realize that we ARE NOT doing a good job teaching them a Lutheran understanding of Scripture or of our basic tenents of faith.
    It’s a club at best, at worst it’s something that your parents are making you do…
    Gotta go to a faith formation meeting. More soon.
    A.

  4. Erin says:

    Erik – thanks for naming and writing so eloquently about what so many of us are thinking! Confirmation and the affirmation of baptism are such tricky things in a young person’s life. I have had kids tell me that they are being confirmed just for the money that they will receive from their grandparents. I never really knew what to say to that!
    Love reading your blog and am looking forward to seeing you in New Orleans in Jan! Save time for a beer with me!

  5. Erik says:

    Crystal – are you going to the Extravaganza? I have visions of people getting together to talk about Confirmation Ministry at some point during that event. If not, perhaps an exchange of blog-posts…conversation-style.

    Ryan – I agree that the Catechism stuff is best learned by post-adolescent minds. However, as you know, Luther intended the Catechism to be taught in the home by parents. Since the Church has to play catch-up in this area, we seem to pour all of our educational resources in the teen years and allow the young adults to twist in the wind. What if we had a series of 4-5 “tracks” that people could pick from? That’s what I’m working on.

    Anne – I don’t envy you with such a large group of kids. How does your church attempt to keep these kids connected during and after Confirmation instruction is over? Mentors? Small Groups? Parental accountability?

  6. Erik says:

    ERIN – thanks for your kind words. I hope things are going well in your new gig at Gustavus. Looking forward to being with you in NOLA as well!!!

  7. Laura says:

    Ryan said this…
    “I agree with you. Confirmation “requirements” are contradictory to Grace theology. We should never “make” students do stuff to get confirmed or do anything to force them to affirm their baptism.”
    Did I misinterpret what you were saying? Weren’t you saying that that argument is “bullcrap”?
    Ryan, are you confused, or am I?

  8. knock says:

    Hey EU Do you remember Jane…you slept on her floor in Willmar…
    She did some interesting things with Affirmation of Baptism…like they actually made their affirmation in church when they were ready…not all on the same day. It took some of the “thunder” for the Lutherans having a confirmation day… but…

  9. Anon says:

    Just wanted to say that I read your rant and wholeheartedly agree. As someone who has stepped away from the church a bit (ok, a lot), I may not be very qualified to comment on this topic. Then again, I may be the perfect example as well. When I look back at high school, and our involvement in the various aspects of youth churchiness, I do so with fondness. But I also remember going through the confirmation process and feeling like it was a bit of a crock. We’re getting taught all of the things it takes to be a good, committed Lutheran…and our examples are mostly members of the congregation who sleep through half the service and know the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds so well that they mumble their way through them without thinking about the words (I clearly remember being like, “Dude, you’re making a proclamation of WHAT YOU BELIEVE here, and you look like you’re thinking about selling car insurance).

    Sadly, I think the larger church body won’t change the way confirmation is done because their “number of confirmed members” (or whatever stat they keep) would plummet. When I worked for the Boy Scouts right out of college, I was so saddened to learn how many major decisions are made based on crappy stats that do no one any good. They preferred to have kids signed up on paper for the programs rather than focusing on having GOOD programs. It was all about the numbers. On some level, I’m sure its the same with the church. They want the names on a confirmation register, not the souls and beliefs that come with the names. I’m sure that ultimately they want both, but if they’ve got to choose…

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your blog. Frankly, the church needs people like you to step up and tell it like it is. I wish you luck, and also hope you have a nice holiday season ahead.

  10. Erik says:

    KNOCK – It sounds like Jane was pretty progressive. How did the congregation respond to that particular approach to Confirmation? I still kinda dig the “Confirmation Sunday” thing…but maybe it would be people of all ages who have gone through a series of classes – not just a uniform group of kids.

    I still remember the one kid at our old church who chose not to participate in Confirmation…but still came around for Sunday School, youth group, and an occasional ski trip. I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes dynamics, but it seemed like he was able to remain active in the life of the congregation, despite his choice to opt out of Confirmation.

  11. katieannhouts says:

    excellent post, erik. ryan and the former sr. pastor at st. john were kicking around a “track” confirmation program…where kids were able to pick certain elements & customize their confirmation experience to suit their personality, learning style, situation, etc. and to do it at whatever age they were ready. looking forward to seeing what you’ve got in the works.

  12. Erik says:

    KATIE – i like what you’re talking about…i think there is a right & a wrong way to do the “track” program…at least that’s what i’m wrestling with. i agree it needs to be somewhat customizable…but i think you want a certain level of uniformity so you know what you’re getting into. i’ll keep you in suspense for a little while longer… 🙂

  13. Kay says:

    Hey Erik – you’re thoughts echo my own. When I was in college back in the dark ages, Gloria Dei in Iowa City had the practice of offering the classes in flexible six-week units, and when completed, youth publicly affirmed thier faith when they chose to. Sometimes two or three did it together, and sometimes the youth did it alone. They could take the classes in whatever order they chose at whatever pace they chose. I thought it worked well.

  14. Erik says:

    KAY – i absolutely love this idea! Thanks for sharing it here. Coffee sometime?

  15. Dan G. says:

    Erik –

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness on an issue that is also near and dear to my heart. I echo many of your concerns – and would add only a couple of thoughts.

    1) I think we are missing the boat when we limited CM to middle school/senior high. Confirmation is a lifelong endeavor, a concept the Lutheran church has woefully misunderstood or ignored. In a desperate attempt to change the mindset that CM is something we ‘do’ to kids before they hit 9th grade, I started requiring parents to attend their own classes this year. I think we need to de-institutionalize the faith growth process – help parents live their God-given vocation. We have a long way to go here.

    2) When it comes to CM, we need to expect more, not less. Parents/families might walk away. We need to be ok with this. The Church needs to recover a sense of being the ‘remnant community.’ The church growth movement has convinced many mainline churches that their first calling is to grow numerically. Funny how when ever Jesus got large crowds, he would start preaching about the cross and his following would dwindle. Never seemed to bother him. It’s like the armed forces. Most anyone can get into the Navy. Only a few are able to be SEALS. In CM (and the church), we are in the business of training SEALS. Sent out into a hostile world to love, serve, strive for justice, preach the Gospel, and so on.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Say hi to Carlson for me.

    DG

  16. Erik says:

    DAN – So great to hear from you! Your two comments go hand-in-hand with each other. Why couldn’t we “expect more” from people who wish to affirm their baptism by extending the expectation into young adulthood? Why do we pump adolescents full of requirements that we wouldn’t place on people with more “mature” faith? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Having parents attend Confirmation class is a great way to introduce that concept. You’re such a provocative and daring young pastor! Kudos to you.

    I will say “hi” to Carlson for ya…but I’ll also say “goodbye”. His last day at WHLC is Sunday. He’s taking a new call to be Bishop Michael Burk’s assistant here in SE Iowa. So, we’ll be starting the call process again, I imagine! 😉

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